Islington in the Victorian era
For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.
One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.
So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.
Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.
He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then) offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.
Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.
This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.
Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:
‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).
He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.
Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842